The great stories about ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus reveal that it isn’t always in spite of our weaknesses, mistakes, and shortcomings but through them that something unknown can come into being. Achilles pride is also the source of his strength (and his weakness is the source of his destiny); Odysseus cleverness charted a long and perilous journey from the pits of misery and captivity to freedom and homecoming. The hero with all his glaring flaws, through all his spectacular mishaps, was meant to fulfill what Mary Poppins creator and Parabola founding editor P.L. Travers called “the essential mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world.”
The revelation is that the same principles apply to the rest of us. When you hit bottom, a new world can open up. Friends of mine recently asked me to reflect on how a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune has enriched my spiritual practice. I’ve been carrying the question around for weeks wondering how in the world a person is to choose. On the one hand, there has been no catastrophic and soul-defining mistake or misfortune–convicting the wrong man of a heinous crime and spending a life time atoning for (ala the book and movie Atonement) or contracting polio and conducting a war-time American presidency from a wheel- chair like FDR. On the other hand, my ego is defined by mistakes, shortcomings, and misfortunes. I’ve heard the ego defined as the “pain body.” I’ve heard it defined as a web of habits, of physical, emotional, and mental addictions, all of them aimed at helping us keep our story about ourselves going, defending us from a pure, unfiltered encounter with reality. The Buddhists speak of the “three poisons” at the root of much of human suffering — greed (or lust), anger (or hatred), and delusion. Once in a blue moon, I experience one of these poisons to such a raging, blinding degree that I surrender to the truth of it. For once, I don’t justify or downplay or deny. I just admit that I have been helpless to my anger, say, and that it has hurt me and hurt others. In those moments, it seems clear that what I call spiritual practice has mostly been thinking. Then, as if by magic, other possibilities open up: patience for myself and others (and patience is an incredible healing balm against anger), lovingkindness, connection with what really is.